Join the Party

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Israel officially celebrated its 64th birthday last month, in conjunction with the Hebrew calendar. But the English date was this week — May 14 — and to mark the occasion, the Jewish Federation, along with the Jewish Exponent and other sponsors, is throwing a big party on Sunday. The Penn's Landing event also coincides with the 45th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, a date we celebrate as Yom Yerushalayim.

It's a time to put aside the politics and fear that too often characterize discussions about Israel. It's a time to enjoy some Israeli culture amid a spirit of communal harmony and shmoozing. And in honor of the Exponent's 125th anniversary, we'll have special activities for budding journalists. So come on down and celebrate!

Keep the Pressure On

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Next week's presidential elections in Egypt and the reconvening of international talks with Iran in Baghdad could have far-reaching implications for the United States, Israel, the Middle East and beyond.

When the Egyptians go to the polls, they will be choosing among an array of candidates who hold vastly divergent views of the role of Islam and what their new democracy should look like. What the candidates all seem to have in common is disdain for their nation's 30-year-old treaty with Israel.

The United States can do little to influence the Egyptian vote, nor should it. But once a new government begins to take shape, it must make clear what's at stake for Egypt. Relations with the United States, including the $1.5 billion in annual aid, should depend on Egypt upholding its peace treaty with Israel — which was the impetus for the aid in the first place.

As for Iran, the next round of talks with world powers — the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany — will be critical. Officials attending the talks must make it crystal clear that sanctions will not let up until Iran ends its uranium production.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the key negotiator in the talks with Iran, said this week, "My ambition is that we come away with the beginning of the end of the nuclear weapons program in Iran." Ashton, who rightly made a stop in Jerusalem to brief Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, must not give in to Iran's efforts to loosen the sanctions. Any diplomatic or face-saving compromises must be contingent on the world's ability to verify what Iran is doing on the nuclear front. Nothing less can justify the end of sanctions. The pressure must continue.

Cuba Extends Welcome

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The leader of Havana's Sephardic synagogue is urging American Jews to put aside their fears and visit Cuba. The 1,400-member community thrives off contact with the wider Jewish world and can use all the help it can get, according to Dr. Mayra Levy, president of the Centro Hebreo Sefardi de Cuba.

"We have our Jewish life with Cuban style. We do our services with heart," even though there hasn't been a full-time rabbi on the island since the early 1960s, Levy, a retired physician, said during an interview last week at the offices of the Jewish Exponent.

The 63-year-old mother of two traveled to the United States to take part in a panel discussion on Latin American Jewry at the American Jewish Committee's Global Forum, held earlier this month in Washington, D.C.

Levy is spending a month in the country, speaking in different synagogues. She's seeking financial assistance for a newly opened senior center serving Havana Jews.

Many elderly Jews live on about $15 per month, though health care is free, she said.

The community also relies on donations from abroad for religious items such as prayerbooks, Shabbat candles and matzah.

For most Americans, traveling to Cuba requires taking part on an organized religious or educational mission, though last year President Barack Obama eased many of the restrictions.

Roughly 1,100 Jews reside in the city, with about 300 others spread throughout the island. More than 15,000 Jews lived in the country on the eve of Fidel Castro's revolution in the 1950s. At the time, most of them emigrated, settling in Israel and the United States, as well as Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela.

By many accounts, Jewish life had become virtually dormant until Cuba changed its constitution in 1992, which allowed for greater freedom of worship and for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to begin assisting the Jewish community.

This has led to a renaissance of Jewish life over the past 20 years, but many of the younger, most active community members have moved to Israel, according to William Recant, an assistant executive vice president at the JDC, who has traveled to Cuba roughly 50 times. Aliyah became an option for Cuban Jews shortly after the constitutional change.

"Somebody has to stay," said Levy, whose two grown sons both live abroad. "What can I say to a young man who decides to have a better future?"

Levy said that she frequently has been asked during her trip about Alan Gross, the social worker and contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who was sentenced to 15 years for bringing prohibited equipment, including satellite phones, into the Communist nation, under a controversial democracy building program funded by the U.S. government.

The Cuban government has labeled Gross, who made five visits to the country and had substantial contacts with the Jewish community, as a spy. Several Jewish groups, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has called for his release on humanitarian grounds.

Levy said the community received Gross warmly. "But he broke the Cuban laws," she said, adding that members of the community visit Gross from time to time.

She insisted numerous times during the interview that, unlike other Latin American countries, Cuba has no anti-Semitism. She pointed out that there are no fences or guards outside Cuba's five synagogues, three of which are in Havana.

JDC's Recant said the government officially states there's no anti-Semitism on the island.

While he said he couldn't verify whether there is no anti-Semitism, he commented that racial hatred was far from the biggest problem facing Cuban Jews. They are very poor by American standards but have their basic needs met, he said.

One area that the JDC found lacking was access to medication, and the organization managed to set up a pharmacy inside one of the synagogues.

When it comes to running Jewish programs, one of the biggest problems is literally getting people there, he said. With so few Cubans owning cars, many individuals need to spend two hours or more on a city bus just to attend an event.

Levy said she wants more American Jews to see and experience Jewish life on the island for themselves. While she's not a particularly big fan of the U.S. government or its policies — she blames the 50-year-old embargo for harsh living conditions — Levy said she loves the American people. The U.S. government still prevents Americans and American compan- ies from selling virtually all goods to Cuba, with the exception of medicine and agricultural goods.

"We are the forbidden island," she said, adding that maybe it's time for people to rethink that characterization.

After 40 Years, Some New Lessons

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When a couple dozen former students and staff of the Jewish Educational Workshop convened recently for the 40th anniversary reunion of this innovative program for teens in the early 1970s, the words "profound influence" resonated throughout the room. What was it about this program, we asked ourselves as we reminisced and viewed slides of those years, that made such an impact on our lives? What was it about the workshop that helped give direction to our personal and professional paths?

A year before the program began in 1972, five graduate and rabbinical students — myself included — met frequently with two high school students with a single goal in mind: to create a program for teens that combined the best that Jewish education had to offer. We took the following ingredients: informal and experiential aspects of Jewish summer camps, the cohesiveness and peer leadership that youth groups produced and effective curricula of Hebrew schools.

But we realized that those weren't enough, since Shabbatonim had similar components. What was missing?

To our surprise, we found that our planning group was modeling what we were looking for — a small group, ongoing get-togethers and the direct involvement of teens. Those were the key factors that needed to be mixed into the recipe. But there was another intangible element that we took for granted — the five staff members were able to relate well with adolescents. This became a major criterion for accepting additional staff members later on. The low ratio of adults to teens was also central to our planning.

The program fell into place with a small group of 20 teens that met one weekend a month throughout the academic year. The students came from various Hebrew schools throughout metropolitan Philadelphia as well as from Akiba Hebrew Acad-emy. The facility, first a large country house in Fort Washington and then a colonial mansion on a 120-acre wooded estate in Horsham (a flood forced us to move from the first site), served as the center for the workshop as well as the home of the five staff members.

The weekend programs focused on various themes, such as the Holocaust, Jewish life-cycle rituals and customs, and holidays. As Robert Allender, a Jewish educator and fundraiser, put it: "We didn't just have a seder. We — students and staff side-by-side — dissected the Haggadah and then created our own. We didn't just study about the Holocaust and listen firsthand to survivors' stories; we built a monument of broken mirrors with barbed wire wrapped around and took it to the Yom Hashoah observance in Center City. We lived our Judaism together in everything we did, from making the meals, including the challahs, to conducting Shabbat services."

The following year, we added another group, a post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah class from Congregation Beth Or, and expanded our staff to nine. We shared our model with many other educators and institutions and received national attention at the first CAJE conference.The Second Jewish Catalog described our program as "one of the more creative projects available for the teenager … It has proved successful since its inception."

After four years, the program came to an end when the owners of the estate wanted to develop the property and utilize the mansion for other purposes. And we, the staff, had completed our studies and were ready to move on with our chosen careers.

At the reunion earlier this month, the former "kids," now in their 50s, recalled the tremendous impact that the program had on their lives. Bill Eisenstadt, general counsel of operations for a national recycling corporation, spoke for many when he described it as "a very special place where we could be free … safe, warm and protected. I'm not sure it is something every teenager gets."

The workshop not only provided a retreat from the daily angst of adolescence, but was also a laboratory for one's Jewish identity to germinate. Said Lynn Friedman, a psychotherapist in Wynnewood: "No day school experience could provide the nurturing and support that the workshop gave us. The workshop continues to influence me in so many ways. It also was my port in the storm during a challenging time in my life."

Some of the former students went on to become Jewish educators and rabbis. Whatever direction their careers took, they all agree that the Jewish Educational Workshop personalized Judaism for them, which they have continued in their own lives and the lives of their children.

The question has arisen many times over the years whether something like the workshop could be replicated or if it was just a convergence of the right people at the right time.

"Keep in mind," explained another cofounder, Jeffrey Eisenstat, co-rabbi (with his wife, Rabbi Sarah Messinger) of Congregation Shireinu in Bryn Mawr, "we were at a point in our lives where we had the energy to pursue full-time graduate studies and run this very labor-intensive program. Plus, we had to teach part-time on the outside, since the tuition we received barely covered the expenses. Busy doesn't begin to describe our hectic lives, but we loved every minute of it."

We have seen Shabbaton programs that have utilized some of the factors of the workshop. But, the truly unique elements, like the small, ongoing groups and the low student-staff ratio, have not been evident. We may have been the products of the '60's, but we were just incorporating a central concept of Jewish life into our program — a strong sense of community.

Rabbi Steve Stroiman retired two years ago after 34 years on the faculty of Akiba/Barrack Hebrew Academy.

 

Bluffing on Iran?

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Washington · Analysis

Just what is Israel's latest thinking on Iran?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in recent months have been more explicit than ever about the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran to keep it from obtaining nuclear weapons capability.

Are Barak and Netanyahu merely posturing, or are they really intent on waging war? It's an issue getting a lot of attention in the mainstream American media and, of course, in Israel as well.A number of current and former top military officials are now suggesting that the duo has gone too far, turning what was meant to be a calculated bluff into a commitment to a strike that could accelerate Iran's nuclear program and engulf the region in war.

Last week, Barak marked Israel's Independence Day with a speech dismissing the likelihood that Iran would succumb to diplomatic pressure to end its suspected nuclear weapons program. He said that while the likely success of an Israeli military strike was not "marvelous," it was preferable to allowing Iran to press forward.

A week earlier, Netanyahu had made a searing Holocaust Remembrance Day speech in which he likened Iran to Nazi Germany and stressed his commitment to Israel's self-defense.

Such posturing is not novel: Israel, like other parties to longstanding conflicts, for years has used brinksmanship to ward off actual warfare. Statements from its military ending with "we will know how to respond" are routine.

The target of such pronouncements is not only Iran but also the international community, said Steve Rosen, a former foreign policy director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who maintains close ties with some of Netanyahu's top advisers. Western leaders are likelier to act to isolate Iran when they are faced with the real prospect of Israel going it alone, he said.

"It's no secret that American and European interest starts with Israel doing something," Rosen said.

Eitan Barak, a Hebrew University expert on international relations (and no relation to the defense minister), described the tactic as one of brinksmanship.

"There is a possibility that Barak is saying in a closed forum, 'The military option is not on the table, but let's say it in public in order to keep this position of brinksmanship,' " the professor said.

The problem might be that the "closed forum" now encompasses only Barak and Netanyahu, he said.

"If this is a diplomatic game, the game should be stopped when you discuss this with people like the Mossad and the Shabak," Eitan Barak said, using the Israeli acronym for the Shin Bet internal security service. "But it could be that Netanyahu and Barak decided it's such an important issue, they should make themselves really warlike even in the Cabinet, so that there will be no doubt in eyes of foreigners and diplomats that they are ready to launch a military attack."

"They create a sense that if the State of Israel does not act, there will be a nuclear Iran," Diskin said. That may be true, he said, but it's wrong to suggest there won't be a nuclear Iran even if Israel attacks. "After an Israeli attack on Iran, there may well be a dramatic acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program."On April 27, the day after Barak spoke, Yuval Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, said he believed that Barak and Netanyahu are serious in contemplating an attack on Iran — and that they are driving Israel into a strike that likely would have severe consequences.

Diskin, speaking to a town hall-type meeting in Kfar Saba, the central Israeli town where he lives, continued: "I do not have confidence in the current leadership of the State of Israel that could bring us into a war with Iran or into a regional war."

Diskin's attack was the bluntest so far on Barak and Netanyahu, but he is not alone.

Meir Dagan, the former chief of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, last year delivered similar warnings, and the current military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, last week said he believed the Iranian leadership was rational and that the country did not pose an existential threat to Israel.

Rosen noted that many of the critics now speaking were either disgruntled or may entertain political ambitions.

"A lot of them feel snubbed," he said. "There's a cadre of security professionals who feel that their views were not adequately taken into account."

Dagan wanted to stay on as Mossad chief and Diskin had ambitions of replacing him. Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister who over the weekend joined the chorus criticizing Netanyahu, is a longtime rival of Netanyahu's who is facing a corruption trial in Israel that could bury his comeback prospects.

David Makovsky, a top analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was not unusual for the military establishment to exercise greater caution than the political establishment, noting that such tensions surfaced in 1981, before Israel took out the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.

"This will be decided by the political echelon, and the security establishment will weigh in, but they won't necessarily be decisive," Makovsky said.

None of the officials criticizing Barak and Netanyahu has broken with the Israeli consensus that an Iranian bomb is something to be prevented and not accommodated or "contained."

The issue concerning the Israeli defense establishment, according to a number of Israeli experts, is whether Barak and Netanyahu have lost site of the utility of threats to strike Iran — to rally the international community toward stopping Iran from acquiring the bomb.

"The threat of an attack remains a tactical measure which has achieved results," said Shlomo Aronson, a political scientist who was the Schusterman visiting professor of Israel studies at the University of Arizona from 2007 to 2009. "It should not be pursued in practical terms."

Aronson said that until now, the tactic has helped focus the international community, led by the Obama administration, on isolating Iran through sanctions and diplomatic pressure.

The concern now permeating the Israeli defense establishment is that Barak and Netanyahu are no longer bluffing, said Avraham Sela, a research fellow of the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace who served as an intelligence officer under Barak when he was military chief of staff in the 1990s.

Sela noted that during Barak's term as chief of staff, during the 1991 Gulf War, he had to credibly threaten to strike Iraqi targets in order to get the U.S.-led alliance to take out Iraqi batteries launching missiles. The George H. W. Bush administration feared that an Israeli strike would shatter the coalition of western and Arab states it had cobbled together.

Barak said recently that Israel would suffer no more than 500 deaths in the event of a war following a preemptive strike on Iran.

Official Advice to J Streeters: Careful What You Say

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Israel's consul general in Philadelphia has told local J Street supporters that as engaged Diaspora Jews, they have a right to voice criticism of Israeli policies — but be careful what you say and how you say it.

"Jews around the world not only have the right to express opinions on Jewish and Israeli matters" but "Israel has the duty to be mindful of these voices from the Jewish world. This is the Zionist thing to do," Daniel Kutner told about 50 J Street activists at a May 10 meeting at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City.

But he added: "Remember that the struggle for Israel's legitimacy, regretfully, is not over, and what we say about Israel is being used against us in the court of law and public opinion.

"If you send conflicting messages on issues of critical importance, it may negatively affect Israel's standing. Please consider that."

Kutner went so far as to read from a new J Street vision statement voicing support for a two-state solution and a Jewish Democratic state, saying that Israel shares those positions. Some of the statements he pointedly didn't read, however, including one calling on "the U.S. government to invest all possible resources to help Israelis and Palestinians" reach a lasting agreement.

Kutner's address to the group was less confrontational in tone, if not substance, than the speech that Barukh Binah, the deputy chief of mission at Israel's Embassy in Washington, delivered at J Street's national policy conference in March.

"We need you to stand with us," Binah said at the time. "It is as simple as that, and someone ought to say it."

Prior to Binah's speech, an Israeli diplomat had never addressed a J Street event since the controversial organization was founded in 2008. Critics of the group contend that J Street is anything but pro-Israel.

Local J Street members said that Kutner's attendance, combined with the location of the meeting — the building owned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia — offered the best proof yet that J Street had achieved mainstream status in the local Jewish community.

But as testament to the controversy the organization still inevitably stirs, the meaning of Kutner's speech — whether it represented an overture or a rebuke — was debated in several Web forums. The Free Beacon, a right-leaning news website, ran an account of the event under the headline "J Street Hurts Israel: Israeli official lashes out at group for weakening Jewish state."

The author was not at the event but said he relied on information from other sources.

In an interview, Kutner himself denied that characterization of his talk.

The Philadelphia event was part of a nationwide launch of the group's "We are the Future of Pro-Israel" campaign, a grassroots effort that organizers hope will use the upcoming election as a means to talk about the need for a two-state solution. Critics contended that the group was using the campaign as a vehicle to push for certain candidates who back J Street's agenda.

Lori Lowenthal Marcus, president of the right-leaning Z Street, argued in an article posted on Z Street's site that J Street's "future" campaign was about advocacy for Democratic candidates.

"But J Street is succeeding in having it both ways," wrote Marcus, who also was not at the event, "by doing pure politics but cloaking itself with the hechsher of the official Jewish community — their buildings, their patina of charity and good works — in order to advance its purely partisan political goal."

At the outset of the Philadelphia program, Steve Masters, chair of J Street Philadelphia, asserted that the event was non-partisan. He said the group's future campaign is under the auspices of J Street's education fund, which because of its tax-exempt status can't endorse candidates but can educate voters on a particular issue. J Street operates two other entities, a political action committee, which endorses candidates and donates to their election efforts, as well as a lobbying organization.

Rebecca Kirzner, J Street's mid-Atlantic assistant regional director, said the group, "like any single-issue advocacy organization, would be watching their issue and how it plays out in the rhetoric of the election" and they will be going to political events and handing out information about Israel and the current climate in Washington, not the candidates themselves.

Kirzner said the group is trying to influence the perception of what it means to be a pro-Israel candidate. But, she said, "we are not taking a position on who is the most pro-Israel candidate," she said.

A national J Street email advertising the launch of the "We are the Future of Pro-Israel" campaign blasted several right-leaning Jews.

"We should all be deeply concerned that a handful of far-right funders and groups like Bill Kristol's Emergency Campaign for Israel are turning Israel into a partisan wedge issue," the email stated.

In the opening lines of his speech, Kutner expressed "disappointment" with this particular email. "Attacks on major Jewish philanthropists, people that help Israel in many ways, that doesn't make Israel stronger or the Jewish community stronger or help the future of pro-Israel."

Kirzner said Kutner's critique of the letter didn't dampen the occasion. "It meant a lot to be able to feel like our viewpoints are completely legitimate within the pro-Israel tent. He was careful to say that the enemy of Israel is not criticism."

Reached the day after the program, Kutner said his talk did not represent a new, gentler Israeli government approach to dealing with J Street.

"My message was also quite clear," he said "while I welcome diversity of opinion within the Jewish and Zionist world, I warned against the consequences of advocating for positions that are not compatible with the elected leadership of Israel."

Sealing the College Deal

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Jeremy Rudoler had finally moved college applications out of his consciousness last winter when the University of Pennsylvania emailed to say that early decisions would be posted online the evening of Friday, Dec. 9.

"That got me freaking out," remembered Rudoler, a senior at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.

Worse, he'd have to deal with the suspense for an extra day because he doesn't use computers on Shabbat.

He'd almost managed to stop ruminating over his inbox when he walked into the kitchen that Saturday afternoon to find his parents and grandparents sitting around the table, a letter from Penn right in the center.

"The letter, of course, was giving me heart palpitations so I asked my dad to hide it," he said. "My whole family was staring at me."

It was thin, Rudoler said, so he figured he'd been rejected or deferred. At least, that's what he told himself to calm down until he could find out for sure because he also doesn't open mail on Shabbat.

He was wrong — and just like that, his college search was ecstatically over.

Rudoler and two other Jewish teens first spoke to the Exponent last spring as they wrapped up their junior year and launched into the painstaking process of finding the institution that will shape the next major chapter in their lives. They took — and re-took — standardized tests, sifted through glossy brochures, researched academic rankings, crunched numbers, met with guidance counselors, toured campuses, wrote application essays and waited, some longer than others, to weigh their options.

Now, the letters have arrived and they, along with thousands of other seniors in the area, can finally relax — at least until their first midterm.

 

Love at First Sight

Compared to classmates who heard back from prospective colleges in March, Rudoler and Council Rock High School South senior Lauren Waksman barely had to wait at all.

Waksman was immediately sold on Temple University after first touring the campus last spring.

"I just knew from the minute that I saw it," the Richboro 18-year-old said.

Since Temple has rolling admissions, she plowed right into the application, updating a personal statement she'd done for an English class assignment and mailing everything by early October. It wasn't stressful at all, she said, until she heard that a classmate had gotten deferred.

"She has the same classes as me, and she's just as smart," Waksman said. "I was really scared."

Fortunately, she only had to wait a few weeks to ease her mind. She was out with friends on the way to a football game when her mom called to tell her that a big red envelop that said "Congratulations" had arrived.

No suspense there, Waksman said dryly. Still, she had her mom open the letter just to be sure. She didn't even wait for her acceptance letter from Hofstra University before committing to Temple. She also got into Rider University, but not University of Delaware.

Eager to get going, Waksman has already attended two "Experience Temple" days, first in February and again in March. She found three roommates through a free online service and secured housing in a suite-style dorm — the only way she would consider living away from home for the very first time. She also settled on environmental science as a major.

"I like the idea of saving the planet, I guess," Waksman said.

At the moment, she's taking English, math and foreign language placement tests online. Depending on those results, Waksman said, she might take a class at Temple's Ambler campus this summer just to get ahead.

It's still a little surreal to think about going off to college, she said.

"You're so close with these people you've known for four years or longer, it's kind of strange seeing them go to a different school than you," she said. "I like my high school's atmosphere and I've really gotten used to it. That's something I'm going to miss."

On the other hand, she said, "I just kind of want to get out and learn something new."

 

Israel, Then College

For Rudoler, the hard part was having too many good options. He started homing in on a list of high-caliber schools last spring, most of them out of state, and set up several overnight visits. Last fall, he wouldn't disclose the four schools he finally settled on, worrying that it would bring bad luck.

Both Penn and Washington University in St. Louis stood out as top choices, he said. Ultimately, he decided to apply early decision at Penn, figuring it would be the biggest stretch, but if he didn't make it, he might at least get a second shot during regular admission.

"It's a reach school for almost anyone," he said. "For me personally, it was a big reach."

Meanwhile, he submitted applications to Wash U, State University of New York-Binghamton and the University of Maryland. Others that he'd gone to the trouble of touring — Cornell, Johns Hopkins and Princeton — didn't make the cut.

Aside from the chance to study medicine and business simultaneously, Rudoler said he's looking forward to participating in Penn's active Hillel community, which seems to have "sort of every strain of Judaism under the sun under one roof." He referenced a weekend visit where students gathered for a service with a guitar on one floor and an Orthodox minyan on another.

"I figured a school like Columbia or NYU would have that sort of big Orthodox section, but I guess I didn't expect a Philadelphia school to have that," he said.

After all that time deliberating colleges, though, Rudoler won't actually start at Penn this fall. Shortly after submitting his acceptance, he requested a deferral in order to take a gap year at a yeshiva in Israel.

"There's not going to be probably another year for the next bunch of years of my life when I can just take off and go to Israel," Rudoler explained, "So if I want to have that experience of immersion in Israel and intensive Jewish studies, then I should do it now."

Deciding on a yeshiva wasn't nearly as hard as finding a college, he said. In fact, he only applied to one that seemed to have interesting classes and suited his level of observance — Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem.

 

The Longest Wait

Barring a waitlist opening, Central High senior Alex Neff will be going to a college that he has yet to see in person.

The Northeast Philadelphia 18-year-old had targeted Penn State from the start, but knew it might be an academic stretch. Too busy with school and a part-time job to make campus visits, Neff relied on the Internet to look for other prospects with good biology departments, active student life and perhaps some sort of Jewish community. His final additions: the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, Penn State Altoona, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and West Chester University.

As predicted, he didn't get into Penn State. He did, however, get into the Altoona branch, as well as Pitt-Bradford and IUP.

Neff said he was leaning toward Altoona, since he could potentially transfer to the main campus after two years there. Unless, he said, he got into West Chester. Other than Penn State, it's the only campus he's actually seen so far, and "I absolutely loved it," he said.

He waited. And waited. In mid-April, he heard that he'd been waitlisted. He won't know if a spot opens up until later this month.

In the meantime, Neff had to send a deposit to one of his three other options by May 1 or potentially end up with none of them. Instead of scheduling campus visits to help him decide, he sat down to examine financial aid packages.

By the dollar signs, IUP emerged the clear winner. Between grants and federal loans, Neff said he'll be responsible for about half of the estimated $20,000 annual tuition and living expenses — about $7,000 less than he would pay at Altoona.

Neff said he was surprised that financial aid packages varied enough to become a deciding factor, especially since he'd made a point of picking affordable state schools.

West Chester's still "my No. 1," he said, but "I'm pretty content with IUP." He "toured" the campus by clicking through online photos and spoke to Central graduates who went there.

If West Chester does come through, Neff said, he'll go through the numbers game again and research which of the two would better position him for medical school.

Though uncertainty still lies ahead, Neff said at least he's got a narrower idea of where he'll be going and how he'll pay for it. Between financial aid, Bar Mitzvah savings and a new job working six nights a week at a burger joint, Neff said he'll be able to handle tuition without taking out "student loans to my eyeballs." His parents, who are divorced, will help as much as they can, too, he said.

The process has definitely been an experience "like none other," Neff said.

"You want to take the time to plan out exactly what you want to do and don't run on impulse," he said. At the same time, "I figure wherever I go, I'll be happy. People always tell me I'm a friendly guy and I'm just kind of easy to talk to, so I figure wherever I go, I'll try my best to make friends."

Gratz Goes Greek

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Michail Kitsos is the first student to travel all the way from Greece to take classes at Gratz College's Melrose Park campus.

He's also the first Greek Orthodox Christian to become valedictorian.

And the 32-year-old is the first graduate whom Gratz administrators immediately hired to create a brand new certificate program, in Jewish-Christian Studies.

On Sunday, the college will recognize Kitsos and 294 fellow graduates at commencement ceremonies. Halfway across the world, Kitsos' 72-year-old mother will lean in to her computer to watch as her son receives his master's degree in Jewish Studies with a specialization in rabbinics.

Unlike Kitsos, the vast majority — 252 to be exact — will receive their master's degrees in education, a secular program started in the late '90s primarily for existing school teachers. That, along with other new general market programs, has helped fund the Judaic initiatives the college was founded to serve in 1895.

The other 43 studied Jewish subjects: 18 earned master's degrees; one a bachelor's degree and others, certificates in topics such as Jewish Early Childhood Education, Holocaust Studies and Jewish Non-Profit Leadership, administrators said.

So how did a devout Christian from Greece end up among such a small, niche group of rabbinics students at a Jewish college in Philadelphia? Curiosity, patience and the Internet, according to Kitsos.

Ever since he first learned biblical Hebrew as part of his undergraduate course work in Christian Theology in Greece, "I felt an attraction to Judaism and to the texts," said Kitsos.

The National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, however, didn't have a Jewish studies department. Furthermore, Kitsos said, "it was very, very odd, in the negative sense, that somebody who is Orthodox Christian would want to study Judaism."

So he went on to graduate studies in the next closest thing: biblical archaeology, which gave him the opportunity to write a thesis on the liturgical uses of the menorah.

Even after that, Kitsos said, he had yet to find a professor who could help him further his interest in Jewish studies. Lacking guidance, he searched the Internet for "Jewish studies" and a link to Gratz popped up.

He was accepted in 2007, but deferred because of the cost. He resisted suggestions to try taking the courses online.

"It would shape my identity to come to the U.S., to strive for what I really love and to make sacrifices," Kitsos explained.

In the meantime, he went back for three more years of school in Athens, obtaining a certificate in palaeography, the study of reading ancient texts. Finally, his older sister gave him money from an acting gig to send him on his way to Philadelphia.

He arrived in January 2010 with little more than his drive to learn.

"It was a promise I made to myself that I want to be an excellent student to prove my sincerity of my intentions — that is, that I love Judaism and I want to become a Jewish scholar," Kitsos said.

"The only thing here was to study hard day and night. I had no friends here, and I still have no friends," he said, laughing.

From the "closet" he rents in Horsham, he takes public transportation to get to campus or the Annunciation/Evangelismos Greek Orthodox Church in Elkins Park. He doesn't have a cell phone, so he calls his mother four times a day through the Internet. Ironically, he said, she refers to the Jewish staff at Gratz as "true Christians" because of the kindness they have shown her son.

What's not to like about a student who "wants to know a subject from beginning to end?" asked his adviser, Ruth Sandberg."

"He is probably one of the most dedicated scholars I've ever encountered," the rabbinics professor said.

It's also been wonderful to have a student with such extensive credentials in Christian theology and ancient texts in class, Sandberg added. "He's able to bridge both traditions in a way that I'm not capable of doing."

So impressed by Kitsos' ability to explain the complexities of Christian dogma, last year Sandberg hired him as an assistant. This past semester, they co-taught an adult education class on Jewish and Christian theology. The students were so "absolutely enthralled and enchanted with him," that they signed a petition to have the class continued in the fall, Sandberg said.

She's also been helping Kitsos develop a certificate program in Jewish-Christian Studies, which Gratz's board of directors officially approved just this spring. After graduation, Kitsos will become the full-time assistant director, still working under Sandberg.

He's already planning a capstone educational trip to Greece and Israel next spring, timed to coincide with the Christian Passover celebration in Greece and Lag B'Omer in Israel.

Despite his fascination with Judaism, Kitsos said he's never considered converting.

"Exactly because I am very well-versed in my Orthodox Christian faith, that's why I truly love Judaism because I see Judaism as the reason that my religion exists."

Plus, he continued, "my word will have gravity if I retain my Orthodox Christian identity and yet speak in favor of what Judaism gave us, what we owe to Judaism. No one will suspect me of defending Judaism because I am one of the Jews."

While working at Gratz, Kitsos said he also plans to investigate doctoral programs in Jewish studies at other East Coast universities. It would be an honor to continue teaching and studying in a meritocracy, he said, especially considering Greece's current financial and sociological instability.

Ultimately, though, he dreams of going back home to start a department of Jewish studies at the University of Athens.

"Jewish monotheism and Greek philosophy are the two pillars of Western civilization," Kitsos said. "I want to bring Jerusalem and Athens together in the place where Christianity was born and where the great ideas of philosophy, of science, of democracy were born."

 

William J. Spiegel, 85, Chairman of Packaging Firm

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William J. Spiegel, 85, chairman and senior managing director of CMS Gilbreth Packaging Systems, died Jan. 15.

Spiegel founded Gilbreth International Corp. in 1961 and managed the company as its president for 27 years. In April 1988, he negotiated the acquisition of Gilbreth by Culbro Corp.

He is responsible for the growth and integration of Culbro Machine Systems, Gilbreth International and Trine Manufacturing, the three member companies that comprise CMS Gilbreth.

While at Gilbreth, Spiegel pioneered the introduction of heat shrinkable plastic in the United States, at first for insulation purposes, and then for packaging products. He managed the transition from overseas importing to U.S. production by developing the technical capabilities and setting up a manufacturing operation.

This operation allowed Spiegel to respond to the 1982 packaging crisis by supplying Tylenol — as well as the leading pharmaceutical and food companies throughout the United States and Canada — with tamper-evident seals.

He also managed the new development of a technology required to replace metal battery jackets with plastic labels having the identical appearance. He received the Golden Cylinder Award from the Gravure Technical Association for this achievement.

Spiegel was awarded the Horatio Alger Award in 1984 from the Golden Slipper Club in recognition of his achievements.

Born in Philadelphia and a graduate of Temple University, he was a member of the board of trustees of Congregation Adath Jeshurun and the board of directors of the Uptown Home for the Aged.

Spiegel is survived by his wife, the former Sue Landes; daughter Adrianne Pass; son Philip Spiegel; sister Anne Pornoff; and two grandchildren.

Memorial donations can be sent to: Congregation Adath Jeshurun, 7763 Old York Rd., Elkins Park, PA 19027.

This Ombudsman’s for You!

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Got red eye?

Forget an antihistamine; Andy Levy may be the cure.

He's certainly helped Red Eye, an eye-opener of a politically incorrect comic news creation anchored by Greg Gutfeld. The increasingly popular show airs at the DVR-worthy hour of 3 a.m. on the Fox News Channel.

This ombudsman's for you: The feisty 45-year-old with his eye always ready at the wink, Levy has been serving up sarcasm and sound bytes for the past five years as the show's ombudsman/fact-checker, eager to call host Gutfeld and guests on the faded red carpet for inaccuracies and verbal indiscretions.

On a show of political debate among newspeople, comics and semi-celebrities — usually with a right-wing bent — Levy lands his own right hooks with a dead-pan delivery that can be devastatingly devilish.

An unapologetic libertarian — like host and friend Gutfeld — whose mischievous mantra is "I apologize for nothing," this political science grad of Columbia University helps make it all politics as unusual on a program where blistering broadsides are interspersed with cracks on Gutfeld's gnome-like height, weird webcam posts of pets in comical positions and conspiratorial conversations between guests.

It is, as Gutfeld once sniveled, "kind of like The View, but with bladder control."

Gutfeld controls the tempo, but Levy holds him in check with his "pre-game" and "halftime reports," and "postgame wrap."

So, what's the rap on Levy, whose esoteric bio includes time served in the miliary as well as war time in the jungles of Hollywood, and keyboard work for singer Dalton Grant?

He and the host, Levy says, live in a time warp: "We have the same warped sensibility," Levy concedes of why he and Gutfeld can gut it out so well on TV. "We make a good team."

Indeed the Jew and the gentile — "Many people think Greg's Jewish because of his last name, but he isn't" — seem more like a young old married couple who can communicate nonverbally, finishing off each other's sneers and insults.

And Levy does snare a lot of attention for his droll observations, such as the one he tweeted about this past Christmas: "I just don't remember this many places being closed for the sixth day of Chanukah last year."

Has Levy always been sarcastic? "I think it's a Jewish thing. I have been snarky as far back as I can remember."

But he makes exceptions. "With a first-time guest of the show, I'm less likely to go at it with them," he says.

What he does have a go at is the Internet, typing as quickly as he can on facts and fulminations expressed during the show, checking on their veracity to villify abusers during his "half-time" report.

How did this wholehearted libertarian grow to be so when his roots were seeded in a completely liberal Jewish family? "During my freshman year at Columbia, I became frustrated with the liberal culture" and its leaders. "Their self-righteousness got on my nerves."

He found — like some others of his political persuasion — the right stuff in author Ayn Rand's work, a fountainhead of support for those who wanted to be left — not politically, of course — alone by government.

He gives a nod to the perfect political home — as well as a bedtime story gone bonkers — at Red Eye, which he occasionally hosts as Gutfeld's sub, and "where the hours are perfect for me since I stay up til 5 or 6 in the morning."

Don't mourn for his health, however; the Red Eye guy can get some shut eye: The show actually tapes at 8 p.m., prior to its next-day airing at 3 a.m.

But is it all fair and balanced? Whether it is or not, the balance sheet certainly is successful. Indeed, the FNC is celebrating at the end of January its unparalleled run of 10 years in first place in cable news ratings. (Bill O'Reilly 's The O'Reilly Factor can factor in an additional two years for its own 12-year skein at No. 1 on FNC.)

It seems to be rubbing off on Red Eye, whose numbers have been surpassing — even at its ungodly hour — those of some competitors' prime-time ratings, including Piers Morgan's interview program on CNN.

Not bad for an off-the-wall show with no ceiling for political incorrectness as it offers its own "Pop Smears," and video paeans to pussycats. "Greg makes fun of my loving cats," says Levy.

Viewers can get a snidely whiplash from all the sardonic asides tossed around the set.

But, surely, there must have been something he's said over the years that makes Levy feel sorry for being so cynical and snappish.

"I apologize for nothing!" says the comedian who, indeed, has nothing to apologize for.