Women Learn, Give and Make a Difference

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March and April are two exciting months on the Women's Philanthropy calendar. Over the course of the next eight weeks, women of diverse ages, lifestyles and income levels will have the opportunity to learn how to overcome information overload to get the news they need, perform hands-on mitzvah projects at the Klein JCC and enjoy a gala evening of laughter and fellowship while making a difference in the lives of others.

"The March 7 speakers series program, the March 13 hands-on mitzvah day at the Klein JCC and the April 17 Live It Up Gala are just a sampling of the unique programs and activities that this affinity of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia offers to help women connect to the Jewish community and to one another," says Women's Philanthropy director Marni Davis. Davis adds that all Women's Philanthropy programming articulates the group's mission — "to strengthen Jewish identity at home, abroad and to respond wherever needs are most pressing."

Renee Sackey, co-chair of the Women's Philanthropy Speakers' Series, along with Shira Goodman, expresses confidence that women attending the March 7 presentation by entrepreneur, speaker and author Gina F. Rubel will be "enlightened and inspired." The lunchtime program on "Information Overload: How to Cut Through the News and Get What You Need" will be presented at Max and David's restaurant, 8120 Old York Rd., in Elkins Park, beginning at 11:30 a.m. "Her presentation is so timely, given the barrage of sound bites we all receive in this 24/7 news cycle. Whether it's politics, celebrities, international conflicts — Gina will address how we can separate the wheat from the chaff," says Sackey, who adds that "I know women will come away with a better understanding of what's important and what's not."

Sackey defines the series as "a wonderful outreach opportunity for Women's Philanthropy — a way to introduce Jewish women in our community to the wide range of educational and social programs that enhance our lives."

Robin Batoff, the Women's Philanthropy vice president, anticipates a strong turnout for the March 13 hands-on social action program at the Klein JCC. "Participants will have an important opportunity to see the tremendous needs in our community as they serve lunch to older adults, assist in the Mitzvah Food Pantry, put together meals for homebound seniors and package food bags," says Batoff, who is coordinating this mitzvah opportunity along with Joanna Goldstein.

Batoff expresses confidence that the experience will result in enhanced contributions to the Federation campaign. "The more educated women are about the critical needs in our community, the more they understand the importance of addressing these needs through their personal campaign commitments," she explains.

Batoff, who notes that Women's Philanthropy raises more than $5 million annually to help Federation meet its goals and priorities, asserts that the success is a testament to the power of building relationships among women who believe in a common cause. She explains that "Women's Philanthropy members form deep friendships based on their compassion and their passion for making this world a better place."

Davis, the Women's Philanthropy director, predicts the "Live It Up" gala, scheduled for Tuesday, April 17, 6:30 p.m., at the Hilton Hotel on City Avenue in Philadelphia, will be one of the affinity group's most successful fundraisers. "It is an opportunity for women to laugh, nosh, perform a mitzvah and make a difference in the lives of others — all in one evening," she says, adding, "We have not hosted a gala in two years and we expect some 400 women to come together for this celebration."

Jewish comedienne Cory Kahaney, a finalist in the first season of NBC's "Last Comic Standing," is the special guest for this evening program. Kahaney has performed on numerous television shows including The Late Show with David Letterman, The Bonnie Hunt Show, The Joy Behar Show and The Late Late Show With Craig Feruguson. She was voted best comedian in New York City by Backstage magazine and best female comedian by the Manhattan Association of Cabarets.

Guests at the Gala, which is open to all women who make a minimum donation of $180 to the Federation, will have a chance to support Women's Philanthropy's three designated giving projects: One Happy Camper — a program that provides incentive grants to attend Jewish overnight camps, which are powerful building blocks for Jewish identity and leadership; The Mitzvah Food Project's Choice Pantry — an initiative that will transform the food pantry at the Klein JCC into a "mini-supermarket" where clients have the freedom to choose what products they would like; and a therapeutic overnight camp program for children served by Orr Shalom, a network of family group homes for Israeli orphans and others who cannot live with their biological families.

Gala co-chairs Tamar Astorino, Melissa Glozman and Gail Mosler Singer ask all Gala guests to bring a new, unopened personal care item to be donated to the Mitzvah Food Project.

Davis emphasizes that these spring events are a small sampling of the full calendar of educational, social and fundraising programming that Women's Philanthropy offers women in the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community. Women's Philanthropy was a strong presence at the recent Federation Super Sunday and will participate in Mitzvah Mania on Sunday, Oct. 27. Every two years there are women's missions to Israel to educate, inspire and empower women as philanthropists, advocates and leaders.

Davis emphasizes that all Jewish women are welcome and valued. Young mothers staying home to raise families, professionals juggling hectic career and personal lives, single adults, divorcees, widows and senior citizens will all find peers at Women's Philanthropy programs and events. "We are an inclusive collective of informed, inspired and motivated women committed to making a difference through our philanthropy and acts of tikkun olam locally, in Israel and around the world," says Davis.

For more information about these and other Women's Philanthropy events, programs and initiatives, call Marni Davis at 215-832-0859 or email: [email protected] Register online at: www.jewishphilly.org.

A Merger for Merged Families?

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Howard Krein, a physician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, and Ashley Blazer Biden, daughter of Vice President Joe Biden, apparently had little trouble finding a rabbi to co-officiate at their church wedding in Wilmington, Del., over the weekend.

Even Everyday Moments Have Special Meaning

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VAYEHI, Genesis 47:28-50:26

In this week's Torah reading, we reach the end of the book of Genesis, the book of the Bible that more than any other is filled with absorbing stories that we treasure, from the seven days of creation to Noah's ark, from Abraham and Isaac's encounter with the ram at the top of Mt. Moriah to Jacob wrestling with the angel as he returns to the land of his birth.

These dramatic stories have for centuries fired our imaginations and they have prompted the many questions and possible answers that over the centuries have helped to weave the fabric of Jewish tradition.

But as we bring the book of Genesis to a close, it is worthwhile to stop to consider how little of "ordinary" life is narrated in it. We look to the Torah as a guide for our own lives, yet few of our lives are as full of the dramatic moments the biblical stories describe in such detail.

While we may find narrative highlights in our own stories — the birth of a child, a wedding, an anniversary, a special birthday or other significant moments in the cycles of our lives — most of our daily existence is taken up with the far more prosaic concerns of eating, sleeping, caretaking and earning a living.

How, then, can we find in the dramatic biblical stories a model for our ordinary lives?

One hint can be found in the traditional practice of midrash — the method of interpreting the text of the Torah that was developed and used by the ancient rabbis who lived 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. The ancient rabbis taught that every word of the Bible, no matter how insignificant it may seem, holds the potential to unlock the meaning of the text.

Even words like "the" or "et," a Hebrew particle that has no specific English translation, were used by the rabbis to explain what the Bible might be teaching us, its message for their times and for our own.

One way we might use the biblical stories as models for our own lives is by looking at them the way the ancient rabbis looked at the text of the Torah.

Of course, we should pay close attention to the dramatic high points of our lives, just as the rabbis lavished attention on the high points in the text of Genesis that I mentioned above.

But, like the rabbis, we should give no less attention to the ordinary moments of our lives, to those prosaic times that are not enshrined in photo albums or retold at family gatherings.

As the rabbis used the midrashic method to open up the meaning of seemingly insignificant words in sacred texts, we can parallel that method by concentrating our attention on the seemingly insignificant everyday moments that, after all, make up the bulk of our lifetimes.

Each moment of our lives, like each word of the Torah, holds the potential for meaning. But just as the rabbis must work hard to unleash the potential of each of those little words, so, too, must we work hard to unleash the potential of each little ordinary moment.

A touch, a word, a glance, a smile — each of these tiny pieces of the mosaic of our lived experience can reveal meaning and infuse our lives with holiness — if, and only if, we take the time to notice them, to feel their significance and to connect them to the story of our lives, stories as sacred as those of our ancestors, even in their most ordinary moments.

Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected]

A Letter of Concern for American Democracy

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Earlier last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed some concerns about Israeli democracy in a closed-door session at the Saban Forum. She reportedly criticized proposed Knesset legislation aimed at curbing foreign funding of Israeli NGOs and gender-segregated bus lines serving haredi Orthodox areas.

A couple of weeks later, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman penned an op-ed saying that he's "deeply worried about where Israel is going today."

Maybe Clinton and Friedman should take a hard look at the state of democracy at home.

In the spirit of Friedman's letter-style columns, I offer my own only half-facetious letter on American democracy:

Dear Tom Friedman and Hillary Clinton:

As I write from Jerusalem and look at what is happening in America, I am very worried. Let me be clear: As someone who used to live in America, I love the United States. I also love liberal values. It is with both of these loves in mind that I must express my concern that the very core of America's democratic underpinnings is disappearing.

Numerous events — not merely isolated incidents — that occurred last year suggest a dangerous trend that strikes at the heart of democracy and ultimately could lead to the country's downfall.

In November, I watched with horror as protesters at the Occupy demonstrations at the University of California, Davis, were viciously mistreated by police. Simply for sitting and showing opposition to America's unfair economic structure, these students were violently and repeatedly pepper-sprayed. This form of police brutality can cause blindness and even death in some instances. The police reaction stands in stark contrast to the principle of freedom of assembly on which America was founded.

Frankly, Occupy movements throughout the country were met with the type of violence that we normally see in totalitarian regimes here in the Middle East.

My deep love for America also drew my attention to New York, where local papers reported on gender-segregated bus lines in Brooklyn. Gender segregation is deplorable and — particularly when it occurs on buses — a stark reminder of a time when American bus companies enforced racial segregation. A democratic country that fails to stop gender segregation will cease to be democratic.

I have been horrified as well as I learn of the views of Michele Bachmann, a mainstream Republican presidential candidate who has such a popular following that she was atop the polls at one point. Yet, her views on homosexuality have no place in a democratic society that claims to treat all citizens equally.

In a 2004 conference, Bachmann said that "gays are part of Satan." And her husband's counseling center espouses the view that Christianity can "cure" homosexuality.

These views are destructive and hateful and have no place among the leaders of a democratic society.

The same goes for Arizona's viscously anti-immigrant law, which was signed by Arizona's governor in April 2010 but is now being challenged at the Supreme Court. This law makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime, effectively encouraging racial profiling by police officers, thus discriminating against Hispanics. America was founded by immigrants. Why turn against them? Treating immigrants as second-class citizens and assuming guilt is the antithesis of democracy. These are signs of impending doom.

Finally, the Racial Justice Act soon may be repealed in North Carolina. What greater sign is there of the erosion of democracy than eliminating something called the Racial Justice Act — which has allowed death-row inmates to argue that racial bias played a role in their cases?

If the legislative pursuits of the Tea Party in North Carolina are a bellwether for American democracy — and I believe they are — then other states certainly will follow with racist legislation. What's next — churches banning interracial marriage?

Again, my concerns come from a place of love. I worry that America is on a self-destructive path and that the death of American democracy is near. This should serve as a wake-up call for deep, personal reflection about the choices Americans have made.

America can still regain its democratic footing, but this will require more action at home, not more handwringing about the internal politics of countries overseas.

Yours truly,

Concerned American living abroad

Jason Edelstein is communications director of NGO Monitor, which is based in Jerusalem.

Until the Refugee Issue Is Settled, There Will Never Be Peace

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We purchased an apartment in Jerusalem in 1979 and have spent three months in Israel each summer for the past 14 years. This has given us a distinct perspective on Middle East affairs.

Much has been written about the "moribund" peace process and the Palestinians' attempt to gain recognition at the United Nations.

In my view, the peace process is dead, and it is truly unfortunate that fellow Jews, particularly Americans, fail to recognize this development.

President Barack Obama and the Quartet continually repeat that negotiations should be based upon the 1967 borders — actually, the armistice lines — and mutually agreed land swaps. What few appear to recognize is that negotiations between the parties resulted in Israel offering land swaps, settlements near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for comparable land in the Negev and the division of Jerusalem.

The offer was made by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton and later was sweetened by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when he not only agreed to the division of Jerusalem, but said the Old City would be treated as a "holy basin" and the Israeli flag would not be displayed there. The Clinton/Barak offer was rejected by Yasser Arafat and resulted in the second intifada.

It is interesting to note that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, whispered "no" to Arafat. This is the same Abbas who as a graduate student at Moscow University wrote a paper claiming that the Holocaust was a myth perpetuated by the Jews. When challenged, he acknowledged that maybe 100,000 died.

The intifada not only destroyed further negotiations, but more than 100,000 Arabs residing in the West Bank and employed in Israel lost their livelihoods. Olmert's offer was ignored.

The question then is: What is there to negotiate? The answer, of course, is the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Arab citizens make up 20 percent of Israel's population. They, for the most part, do not refer to themselves as Israeli Arabs but as Palestinians. Only a token few refugees can return without affecting the Jewish character of the state.

There are more than 400,000 refugees living in squalor in Lebanon, which refuses to integrate them and wants to be rid of them. If they can't return to Israel, where are housing and income-producing jobs for them in the West Bank? Nobody talks about this. There are approximately 2 million to 2.5 million Arabs in the West Bank. The land has no natural resources, no major industries. They are totally dependent on aid from the United States, the European Union and Arab states to pay their bills. If such aid is cut off, the area will become a hotbed of extremism.

In a recent poll, 73 percent of Palestinians were opposed to a two-state solution. And it is likely that Hamas will take over when an election is held.

So to say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is responsible for the failure of negotiations is nonsense. Until the world recognizes that the issue is not settlements, but dealing with the refugee problem in a way that does not result in demographically swamping Israel, there will be no negotiations. The Palestinians will not give up on the right of return. But until the refugee problem is solved, there will be no peace.

Mervin J. Hartman is an attorney with the Center City law firm Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads.

A Destructive Force

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News that an insidious movement to delegitimize Israel will be convening a conference at the University of Pennsylvania next month is stirring much angst in our community.

The anxiety is justified, but we as a community must be careful not to overreact so as not to hand the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, known as BDS, a public-relations victory.

We also must be careful to let the pro-Israel student activists on campus take the lead in their response to the BDS forces about to descend on their university.

Make no mistake: The effort to boycott Israel is a misguided, malicious attempt to equate Israel and its policies with the oppression of South Africa's former apartheid regime. Those at the helm of the movement are less interested in finding a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict than in promoting a pro-Palestinian agenda that, if achieved, could lead to the so-called "one-state" solution and spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

The University of Pennsylvania must be commended for its recent statement disassociating itself from the conference and opposing the boycott efforts. Noting that the event is not sponsored by the university but by a registered student group, the Penn statement, signed by the president, Amy Gutmann, states:

"The University of Pennsylvania has clearly stated on numerous occasions that it does not support sanctions or boycotts against Israel. Indeed, Penn has important and successful scholarly collaborations with Israeli institutions that touch on many areas of our academic enterprise." Now the esteemed Ivy League institution must be careful not to be manipulated as the national BDS movement inevitably will try to use the university's prestigious backdrop to advance its cause.

There is likely no good that can come from the divisiveness and anti-Israel rhetoric that will surely characterize this conference. Rather than constructive debate and discussion about two states for two peoples, this gathering will feature speakers with long histories of blaming Israel for all the region's problems.

While the BDS movement is no doubt manipulating its few supporters on campus to advance its agenda, the larger challenge is how to educate the wider university community, and particularly Jewish students, about the realities in Israel. This is not to whitewash the problems that Israeli society faces or even stifle criticism of Israeli policies that will inevitably arise, especially among college students, many of whom grew up with little knowledge of — or connection to — the Jewish state.

Hillel's plans to help students organize discussions and forums to gain a better understanding of Israel in response to and beyond the BDS conference should be applauded. That's the difference between constructive and destructive engagement. The BDS movement could learn a little something from such an approach.

Elder Netanyahu Recalled as Noted Scholar and Right-Wing Activist

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Benzion Netanyahu — historian, one-time political activist and father of Israel's prime minister — had strong ties to Philadelphia and played a surprising and little-known role in American political history.

An accomplished scholar and the patriarch of one of Israel's most important political families, Netanyahu died Monday in Jerusalem at 102.

He was born in Poland in 1910 to a family deeply immersed in the world of religious Zionism. His father, Rabbi Nathan Mileikowsky, a popular Zionist preacher, brought the family to British-ruled Palestine in 1920. He Hebraicized the family name to Netanyahu.

In the wake of the Palestinian Arab riots of 1929, Netanyahu was attracted to the militant wing of the Zionist movement, Revisionist Zionism, headed by Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky. His literary talents were recognized early on, and he served as editor in chief of the Revisionist newspaper HaYarden in the 1930s.

In 1940, Jabotinsky sent several of his leading disciples, including Netanyahu and future Knesset member Hillel Kook (better known as Peter Bergson), to the United States to seek funds and public support for the rescue of Europe's Jews and creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

"It was a brand new world for us," Netanyahu told me in one of my interviews with him. "I had never been to America. But I had to learn quickly — there was no time. The world of European Jewry was going up in flames."

Netanyahu became executive director of the U.S. wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement and editor of its magazine, Zionews. His essays were notable for their passion, political insights and high level of fluency in a language he only recently had mastered.

Bergson and Netanyahu employed tactics that were not commonly used by the American Jewish community at the time, including placing full-page advertisements in The New York Times and other newspapers. Some of the ads challenged the Roosevelt administration's stance on refugees. Others took aim at the British government's White Paper policy of closing Palestine to Jewish immigration. One that Netanyahu authored was headlined "The White Paper Must Be Smashed, if Millions of Jews are to be Saved!"

Netanyahu divided his time between Revisionist headquarters in New York City and Capitol Hill, where he sought to mobilize congressional backing for Zionism. At the time, mainstream Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise were strong supporters of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and stayed away from the Republicans. Netanyahu, by contrast, cultivated ties to prominent Republicans such as former President Herbert Hoover, as well as dissident Democrats such as Sen. Elbert Thomas of Utah, a Mormon.

In 1944, Netanyahu sought to have the Republican Party endorse Jewish rescue and statehood.

In the months leading up to that year's Republican national convention, the Revisionists undertook what they called "a systematic campaign of enlightenment" about Palestine among GOP leaders, including Hoover, Sen. Robert Taft, who chaired the convention's resolutions committee, and Rep. Clare Booth Luce, wife of the publisher of Time and Life magazines.

The GOP adopted an unprecedented plank demanding "refuge for millions of distressed Jewish men, women, and children driven from their homes by tyranny" and the establishment of a "free and democratic" Jewish state. The Republicans' move compelled the Democrats to compete for Jewish support and treat the Jewish vote as if it were up for grabs. The Democratic National Convention, which was held the following month in Chicago, for the first time endorsed "unrestricted Jewish immigration and colonization" of Palestine and the establishment of "a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth."

These events helped ensure that support for Zionism and later Israel would become a permanent part of American political culture. Every subsequent Republican and Democratic convention has adopted a similar plank. To do less became politically inconceivable.

In recent years, pundits have speculated on the extent to which Benzion Netanyahu may have influenced his son's actions as prime minister. While it is difficult to draw a direct connection between father and son on specific policy matters, there is a parallel in their efforts to cultivate support for Israel on both sides of the political aisle.

Reluctant to grant interviews, Netanyahu succeeded in eluding the spotlight. He only recently agreed to cooperate in the first documentary on his life and legacy, by Israeli filmmaker Moshe Levinson, which coincidentally was scheduled to premiere this week in Jerusalem.

Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C.

Israelis Paying Steep Price for Goods

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It's a question many a shopper in Israel has pondered, particularly if they've spent time overseas.

Why does this fill-in-the-blank cost more in Israel?

Whether it's a box of Cheerios, a supply of Ziploc bags or a shirt from H&M, Israelis are paying more for many consumer goods than their counterparts in Europe and North America.

Consider the price for a pair of women's slim cargo pants from the Swedish retailer H&M. In the United States, the pants cost $29.95. In France, the same pair of pants cost $32.40. In Israel? $39.22.

What accounts for the difference? Experts say the reasons vary by market category, ranging from higher taxes — the tax rate on new cars, for example, is 78 percent — to Israel's unusually small market size to the Israeli consumer's eagerness to pay a premium for brand-name imports.

In the clothing industry, for example, the profits that retailers in America and Europe generate through volume are not possible in Israel, a country with just 7.5 million people and two seasons rather than four.

"In the U.S.," says economist Natanel Haiman, head of the Manufacturer's Association of Israel's international regulation department, "you can sell a product with different margins, knowing there's such a huge market out there. By us, the margins are smaller. Even if every single Israeli buys a certain product, you can still only earn so much from it. So if it's a brand name, and people want it, the supplier can place a premium price on it. There's no one factor that stands out in the price issue."

In addition, logistics like transportation cost more in Israel because imports must come by air or ship rather than by truck or rail.

"Buyers have to know what is going to sell from a collection before they order it," says Ophir Lev, general manager of the Israel Textile and Fashion Association. "They have a much smaller window of opportunity because of the market size, and they don't want to get stuck with any leftover inventory. That brings the price up."

There is growing discontent in Israel over the high prices Israelis pay for everything from housing to cottage cheese, and the massive social protests over the summer brought new scrutiny to the costs of living in Israel.

The Marker, the financial section of Israel's daily Ha'aretz, launched a new column this fall called, "How long do you need to work for … " listing the number of hours one needs to work on an average Israeli salary in order to pay for products ranging from Heinz ketchup to an Ikea side table.

There once was a time when imported products weren't even available in Israel. Twenty years ago, if you wanted M&Ms, Secret deodorant, Playtex or Saran Wrap, you had to ask your second cousin in America to bring it in his suitcase. Americans would immigrate to the country with rolls of Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil in their luggage.

But in the early 1990s, multinational corporations entered the Israeli market after the government liberalized the import process and eliminated import quotas. Consumer goods giant Unilever bought Israeli food manufacturer Telma, and Swiss food company Nestle bought Osem, another major Israeli food manufacturer. Today, Israel has some 2,000 food importers alone, according to the Israeli Chamber of Commerce.

At present, a customs tax of approximately 12 percent is charged on imported items, including toys, clothing, cosmetics, luggage, medicine, tires, raw materials for chemicals and wood, and electric appliances like dishwashers, washing machines and ovens.

In an effort to appease the public over the cost-of-living protests, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz signed a directive last week abolishing customs duties on hundreds of imports; the changes took effect Jan. 1 and are expected to cost the government more than $100 million annually in lost revenue.

The changes were among the recommendations of the Trajtenberg Committee, which the government set up to formulate possible ways to address the demands of this summer's protests.

Haiman says the 12 percent tax isn't what accounts for the sometimes vast differences in price between Israel and America. He attributes the price differences to importers who have figured out they can charge higher prices in Israel for brand-name products because consumers are willing to pay it.

If people don't want the products, they wouldn't shell out money for them, says Gali Berger, a spokeswoman for Super Pharm, the country's largest drugstore chain.

"It's about consumers and their needs and what they want on the shelf and what sells," she says. "The customers vote with their feet, whether it's Israeli or not. And we try to offer the best products available."

Pa. House Loses a Liberal Voice

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Twenty years ago, Larry Ceisler challenged State Rep. Babette Josephs (D-District 182) in a primary. He lost, joining a long list of Democrats who tried over the years to unseat the Center City lawmaker.

Though Ceisler, a well-known political and communications strategist had once been an opponent of Josephs, he grew to appreciate her style of politics. He described her as possibly the most liberal representative in the 203-member House. She's someone who he described as too principled to engage in the wheeling and dealing often required by Harrisburg, he said.

Now that she's been defeated after 27 years in office, Ceisler said the House just won't be the same without her.

"She was this lone voice of progressive politics in Harrisburg," said Ceisler. "She was ideologically principled. She was different — she was this Jewish grandmother type who carried a backpack and who was sort of throwback to the '60s."

Attorney Brian Simms defeated Josephs with 51 percent of the vote to 48 percent, receiving 3,661 votes to Josephs' 3,428, according to unofficial results. With victory in November virtually assured, Simms is poised to become the first openly gay member of either the Pennsylvania House or Senate.

Simms had raised more money than previous opponents and was able to mount a vigorous campaign.

Josephs is leaving office in the same manner in which she came to it. In 1984, in her mid-40s, she defeated State. Rep. Samuel Rappaport, Jewish incumbent, in a hard-fought primary decided by a little more than 400 votes.

Josephs could not be reached for comment after her defeat.

Before being elected, she had served as the director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League PA. Once in office, she championed the issue of choice. She was a proponent of gay rights and, in recent years, had pushed to have sexual orientation covered under Pennsylvania's 2002 hate crimes law.

(Gays and lesbians were originally covered under the law, but the portion of the bill extending protections to gays and lesbians was thrown out under a 2008 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision.)

Josephs had also introduced legislation, which was never passed, that would have ensured the right of mothers to breast feed in public.

Hank Butler, director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, which lobbies on behalf of Jewish communities across the state, worked with Josephs on a number of issues.

"She has been a champion for her constituents and for the Jewish community since she came to office," he said. "Hopefully, she'll still be pushing her agenda."

He said that he's looking forward to working with Simms but said it's unfortunate that Simms' gain had to come about through Josephs' loss.

In 2001, she became the Democratic chair of the influential State Government Committee and, starting in 2007, she enjoyed a four-year stint as overall chair of the committee when Democrats were a majority in the House.

During that time, she used her sway to help push through a law forcing Pennsylvania's pension funds to divest from companies doing business with terrorist-sponsoring states such as Iran and Sudan. Josephs spoke out often about the genocide taking place in Darfur and often invoked the Holocaust and the need to prevent atrocities today.

When she lost her post as majority chair of the committee, she often clashed bitterly with the current chair, Republican lawmaker Daryl Metcalfe. Josephs often criticized Metcalfe's harsh language concerning undocumented immigrants.

In the end, she had few major legislative achievements to her name, but according to Ceisler, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Her time in office will be remembered more for the issues she championed and the constituents she helped than the bills she sent to the governor's desk.

"It is the rare few who are able to get something done in Harrisburg," he said. "You have to have everything: You have to be in the majority, you have to be well-liked, you have to be non-controversial, you have to know how to make deals and trade."

Spotlight on Special Needs

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Growing up, Rachel Dunn participated in an all-Jewish Girl Scout troop and even went to day school. But the Jewish high school she wanted to attend wouldn't accept her, the Rhawnhurst 18-year-old said, because she couldn't read Hebrew without vowel symbols.

"I honestly still can't," Dunn said, adding that dyslexia, dysgraphia and Asperger's Syndrome might prevent her from ever mastering that skill.

Speaking before an attentive audience at a third annual citywide inclusion conference, Dunn described how she instead found her place at the Jewish Community Hebrew High School of Gratz College, where teachers allowed her to take exams out loud during breaks.

One by one, five other disabled adults shared their successes and disappointments during a kick-off panel to "Opening the Gates of Torah: Including People With Disabilities in the Jewish Community," held Sunday at Adath Israel in Merion Station.

"Could you ever hear enough of their stories?" asked Debbie Gettes, program director for special needs initiatives at Jewish Learning Venture. "Everyone always tells them what to do or gives guidance, but when do we ever let them talk?"

It was the largest conference turnout to date, drawing about 220 parents, disabled adults, educators, clergy and social service professionals from all over the region and as far as western Pennsylvania and New York, said Gettes, who put together the conference with the help of a consortium of special needs advocates from 15 local organizations.

Following the panel, attendees split up into classrooms to learn about everything from assistive technology to experimental job training programs in other states. They listened, shared stories and took notes. And in between all of that, the parents commiserated, and in some cases, flat-out griped, about the arduous process of finding services for their children, the dearth of suitable jobs, the lack of sessions that applied to their particular situation and so on.

But they also networked. Gettes said she heard about several attendees connecting with someone who directed them to a potential resource or contact. One of the panelists even set up an appointment with an attorney who focuses on special needs to discuss an issue at his college.

"People are so excited because they're all there," Gettes said. "When do you ever get a group of people together like that?"

Whether participants get inspired to replicate an initiative they heard about or simply seek out more information about a particular topic, the important thing is "keeping the conversation going," Gettes continued.

"If no one's talking about it, it becomes a non-issue."

As for Dunn, she hopes that those who want to help the special needs community will take the time to listen to the people who have disabilities.

"When people look at me, they see parts of me," Dunn said, keeping her eyes trained on the table, her face half-hidden by a baseball cap. "What I want people to see is both the kid who wants to fit in and stand out."